Finest City Moves to take Decisive Lead in Breeders’ Cup F & M Sprint
PHBA AWARD BANQUET
JUNE 9, 2017
Acknowledgements/Brian/Roger/Board/Guests/fellow PA Breeders/honor to speak. Topic=Story how Finest City came to be PABRED Breeders Cup winner and ultimately Eclipse Award Winner as best female sprinter. One main takeaway is without the PHBA Breeder fund incentives there would not have been a Finest City.
Before I present “My Finest City” story, I want to highlight my strange connection to the first PABRED Breeders Cup Winner-Go For Wand. During my Marine Corps tour in Vietnam, 1968-1969, approximately two decades before Go For Wand’s 1989 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies win, I met and worked closely with a young (we both were young :)-) Marine Lieutenant, Bret Lunger, who went on to become one of the first American Drivers in Formula 1 auto racing.
Fast forward to 1984 and the creation of the annualBreeders’ Cup World Championships. Not surprisingly top breeders like Christiana Stables were soon participating and producing winners. Go For Wand not only won the Breeders Cup Championship in 1989, but also like Finest City, won an Eclipse Award for Best 2 year old Filly. The connection between Go For Wand and Finest City is that Bret Lunger’s mother Jane Dupont Lunger owned Christiana Stables and bred Go For Wand. So there is definitely a strange coincidence and a bit of karma between PA’s 1st and 4th Breeders Cup Champion Fillies.
Saturday November 5th Santa Anita Park, the Great Race Place, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, the hallowed grounds that hosted the likes of Sea Biscuit, John Henry, Zenyatta to American Pharoah, 72,811 Fans on hand, the largest crowd to attend a Breeders Cup since introduction of the two day format— cheered on as Finest City is about to go against 12 competitors— challenging to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint Grade 1 world championship including Wavell Avenue the previous year’s champ. Not the favorite, but with Money Mike Smith, up in a wide open race, Finest City is getting some respect and is sitting at 4/1 to 5/1 odds.
Glued to our big screen TV, pacing nervously back and forth at home in Saratoga CA, reflecting on, not only the strange week leading up to the race, but also the fact we were not at Santa Anita, which is basically our home track, and the improbability of possibly being the Breeder of a Breeders’ Cup Champ, and that Champ if she does succeed will be a PABRED, 1st in 24 years and 4th in History.
Why weren’t we at the race? Besides Finest City, we actually had another Mare in the race as owner and nominator (explain nominator)-Living the Life-3 times Graded Stakes Winner-including two Grade 2’s Master Stakes wins, and a Grade 3 Win over the males in the All American Stakes. She was Grade 1 placed on dirt, and had over 1 million $$ in her bank account. As a connection to two runners in a 13 horse field we had made elaborate plans to attend the race.
Devastatingly, in her last prep workout, LTL came up lame and could not participate. In a knee jerk reaction to this disappointment I gave away our tickets and canceled our travel package. Twenty-four hours later, and to this day, I regretted my decision, but it was too late to go back.
Now the rest of the story. Born in Sharon PA, a son of German immigrants with no connection to horse racing, I got involved in thoroughbred breeding and racing relatively late in life, hopefully not too late, in my early 60’s. I’m hoping the old adage that horsemen live longer than the general population —because they are waiting for the next big horse to come along—–is true.
I spent the majority of my business career breathing life into pre revenue, high tech start-up companies— generally taking them to positive exits after 4 to 6 years of compulsive commitment. Either I became an adrenaline junky from this lifetime pursuit— or I was an adrenaline junky in the first place, and this was the cure for my addiction.
Reflecting on a future, that no longer involved running another upstart, entrepreneurial venture, I decided that I needed to create a glide path to something I could create myself that would fulfill this need. I continued my business career until a couple years ago while launching my horse racing business in parallel. The last 18-24 months I have been full time on my thoroughbred business.
After some analysis of my likes and dislikes, I decided to put together a plan to breed and race thoroughbreds.
“Feel Free to laugh.”
It was a good thing that I didn’t realize how little I really knew about “The Game” or I likely would have never started down this road. Over the years, I was a casual thoroughbred horse racing fan who really enjoyed attending live racing a couple of times a year mainly Bay Meadows and occasionally Del Mar.
Plus, during most of my business career I visited the United Kingdom frequently. I was an avid reader of Dick Francis novels, an ex-jump jockey, whose popular crime mysteries tied to the inner workings of British horse racing. I became somewhat of an anglophile and attended races in the U.K. ,almost as a ritual during most of my trips.
No doubt I read one too many Dick Francis novels because it gave me a romanticized view of the horse business and being an owner.
As I took my first steps, one thing in my favor was decades of entrepreneurial experience bootstraping companies after receiving initial tranches of seed capital. Armed with unabashed enthusiasm and confidence—-only outweighed by my naiveté, ——-I started my quest for success in a completely new field of endeavor, far from the technology world.
Attending some Owner seminars sponsored by TOC in CA, auctions, visiting farms and meeting a few folks involved in the then vibrant Nor Cal horse racing scene centered on Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, I jumped in.
My goal was to run successfully at the tracks in Northern CA, eventually with horses bred by myself. I targeted claiming level races and claimed a few horses as well as buying some yearlings at auction for modest sums.
On the business side, the attraction I saw in the thoroughbred business was an opportunity to create a business with no employees or partners, through outsourcing and self funding; lots of analytics and data, intense competition; mobile assets; most deals done on a handshake; and instant gratification of the racing. During this time I became a voracious reader and student of every book, magazine, newsletter, video and TV program that I could digest which is ongoing.
And as seemingly=== endlessly====and ==== unpredictable=== the horse business is, I always have an updated plan so I am managing against predefined expectations, knowing full well that it will have to be adapted as reality unfolds.
And after all of that, then I fell in love with the horses, whose stewardship became my top priority. That was it. Thoroughbreds became my new compulsion!
Off and running, I got into the business just in time for the 2008/2009 financial meltdown that impacted our industry so savagely. What many, if not most, in our business viewed as a significant setback or worse, was a blessing in disguise for me.
I was going through a rapid learning process via the school of hard nocks via trial and error. Especially errors. My first efforts were less than successful.
Relief was about to arrive from an unexpected source. Given my years as an entrepreneur, I recognized the financial tsunami that “gob smacked” the entire world financial structure as the opportunity for a full stop, and a restart, with a new plan. Failure in Silicon Valley is not vilified, but considered a right of passage, so I didn’t find this initial setback as something out of the ordinary. So a “restart” is what I did.
With frenetic energy and focus, I found homes for my entire stable with the exception of a couple mares bothwhich I retain to this day. The biggest thing I learned from this initial foray was “There is no such thing as a cheap horse.” Upkeep is relatively the same, so head up market as high and as fast as possible. The biggest thing I accomplished was setting the cornerstone for a foundation of able, trusted advisors, which I continue to rely on and grow to this day. And finally, my horse named Danger, a 16:1 long shot, placed 2nd in the Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes in 2008. That put the hook in very deep. I was so excited that I remember little of the 3 hour drive home from Santa Rosa CA except the overwhelming feeling of euphoria.
Armed with real world experience, what to do next? The racing fabric in CA was ruptured. Bay Meadows our wonderful local track shut down. Breeding and racing horses in CA and at least breaking even financially was a dream of the past.
During this transition I broadened my horizons. I attended the Kentucky Derby & Oaks, the Preakness and toured several breeding farms in KY including Winstar Farms. I remember specifically visiting Tiznow, an icon to me, from the famous Winning one for America Breeders’ Cup Classic Win. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to breed to some of these top sires”. I also went to the Breeders’ Cup races several times at Santa Anita.
The totality of these experiences raised my aspirations as to what might be possible. My mindset went from breeding claimers to breeding horses that I couldn’t afford to buy.
Searching for a better venue to relaunch HnR, I met Carl McEntee, then of Ghost Ridge Farm in late 2010. Carl was attempting to re-syndicate Smarty Jones. Even a newby like me knew about PENNSYLVANIA hero Smarty Jones, and the idea of being a Smarty Jones’ season holder was exciting, and led me to investigate the racing landscape in PA for breeders an
I found the PHBA program to be a major incentive to become involved in PA. It looked like Utopia compared to CA. And being originally from PA was the icing on the cake. Doing the deal for Smarty Jones to move from KY to PA took a lot of time and was complicated. It gave me a chance to get to know Carl and his boundless energy and optimism.
Frankly, I never thought Carl would pull it off. I likened it to what we call a “cram down round” in the venture capital world, but he persevered and we bred a mare to Smarty Jones in 2011 and produced our first PABRED, Smarty’s Legend in 2012.
Later that year, Carl moved to Northview Stallion Station in Peach Bottom, bringing Smarty Jones, Jump Start and E Dubai with him. I came out to visit several times to evaluate the facilities and discuss various opportunities in PA. Our strategy expanded to include breeding to sell, in order to diversify and balance the risk of racing.
One of these trips took place the week before the 2011 Preakness. Animal Kingdom two weeks from winning the Kentucky Derby, was deep in preparation for the Preakness at Fair Hill Training Center. Through a mutual friend, Carl and I were told we could come by and see Animal Kingdom in his stall. The weather turned sour and a strong spring storm with a bit of thunder spooked the horses. We waited patiently to see the big guy, but in the end we weren’t granted an audience.
During the long wait in the car, Carl and I discussed a plan and economics required to buy a proven sire, move him to PA and support him with an appropriate broodmare band. I am almost certain, without that chance thunderstorm waiting to see Animal Kingdom, hatching a plan to buy a sire for PA would never have materialized. It was pretty spontaneous.
After fleshing out a business plan to support the PA Sire Plan, Carl and I identified a short list of sires that met our criteria in terms of bloodlines, likelihood of availability, and price. Our initial target was Henny Hughes. At one point we thought we had a deal to buy him, but it didn’t materialize. We moved to Silver Train and couldn’t get a deal done and so on. The list was not very long after that. It didn’t look good. Then a major downdraft occurred in the stock market. The 2008/2009 financial collapse was still an open sore among investors. A radio interview with Tom Ludt Chairman of the Breeders’ Cup regarding the flight of discretionary money encouraged me to reapproach the Silver Train syndicate. This time the deal was consummated quickly at a price that met our budgetary constraints.
With Silver Train acquired, we put together a budget to acquire mares to support his breeding program. We were confident Silver Train would be very popular the first two years standing in PA so our efforts were multi-year, aimed at supporting him in the critical third year.
Our acquisition program included buying mares in foal, racing prospects, and claiming mares that were still racing. Our Golden Gate Fields based trainer, Keith Nations move to PARX buoyed our confidence in our program. He was a trusted ally we could rely on to train and claim horses.
Carl and I did extensive analysis for the 2011 Keeneland November Breeding stock sale. The plan was to purchase up to 5 broodmares taking advantage of depressed prices to score some bargains. Besides pedigree, physical compatibility, race record-some black type highly preferred, and youth, our goal was to recover the purchase price of the mare from sale of the first foal and then breed the mare back to Silver Train.
After creating a list of suspects, we spent days walking the grounds and bidding on mares that we believed met our criteria. We lost out on a number of our candidates, but bought 3 mares including Be Envied.
Our thoughts were— we must be geniuses—-or missing something—- because we purchased this beautifully pedigreed 9 year old daughter of the Lemon Drop Kid in foal to emerging leading sire City Zip for $37,000, Though City Zip stood for a modest $10,000 in 2010, he was on the rise and his precocious capabilities were documented. Be Envied had a good race record, black type and was ½ to Grade 1 winner Burning Roma with lot’s of black type on the rest of the page.
The next morning, Be Envied was on her way to Northview Stallion Station. She settled in nicely and produced a beautiful light chestnut filly on March 28, 2012. New to the commercial auction market, I set off to name my foals, giving little thought to whether they would be sold.
Everyone who looked at Be Envied 12 thought she was a knockout weanling. I started thinking about racing her, having bred only a handful of horses in CA, none of which were commercial. Given the name of the sire and the mare, I registered her with the Jockey Club as City Envy.
Time passed quickly, and the raves continued. By late summer, 2012, Carl was convinced that we could hit a homerun by selling City Envy as a weanling and perhaps get 5 times what we paid for the mare in utero. My entrepreneurial background kicked in, and I saw this as a potential path to enhance our cash flow.
We x-rayed her and the results were clean. We started early sales prep on her at Northview MD and then consigned her to Fergas Galvin’s Hunter Valley Team for final sales preparation. She was very live in the run up to sales day with a huge number of looks and vetting. Fergas who is rightfully very conservative even caught the fever.
Though we set the reserve at $50,000, we expected her to bring up to $150,000. When the actual bidding started, it was weak and ended exactly on her reserve of $50,000, so she sold. We had a debrief after the auction to try to understand how we could be so wrong. It turned out, she was not vetting clean due to a cyst in her stifle.
Unfortunately, the cyst was not detected in our initial x-rays, or we wouldn’t have entered her in the sale. We definitely had mixed emotions after the sale. Cobra Racing purchased City Envy. We thought they would keep her to race. Instead they sold her at the 2013 yearling sale to Seltzer Thoroughbreds for $85,000.
Through a family gift, a 3rd generation horseman, but brand new trainer, aged 28, Ian Kruljac, took on Finest City, renamed for San Diego, home base of Seltzer. How new? Through the end of 2016, Ian has run a total of 6 horses under his stable name, with virtually all the victories coming from Finest City.
The good news is Ian had plenty of one on one time to spend on quirky Finest City’s and some of her minor physical maladies. As I waited for Breeders’ Cup announcer Larry Colmus to call the race, I reflected on what Ian told me about Finest City. I quote. “I would just add she’s on the small side, but has the biggest heart. She will hold her own/ compete against any other. She holds herself with so much confidence that’s not to be messed with. I truly stay out of her way mentally. She pulls me around the walking ring directs where she wants to go. Workouts are the same; she’s never asked. Very few have her will. “
I liked our chances.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Brief description of the race.
Pandemonium followed. My Cellphone exploded with calls and texts as my wife and I stopped cheering and jumping up and down. The first horse that I bred and sold at auction had just won a Breeders’ Cup Championship.!!
Finest City joined Go For Wand, Alphabet Soup and Tikkanen as the 4 Breeders Cup Champions from PA during the Breeders’ Cup 34 year history.